Bolivian President Clamps Down on Cooperative Mining Sector Following Conflict
Negotiations between government and mining cooperatives are unlikely after the murder of a vice-minister during a confrontation miners, says Kathryn Ledebur
GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert, coming to you from Quito, Ecuador.
The government of President Evo Morales of Bolivia announced on Monday that it will be willing to negotiate with mining cooperatives about the country’s new mining law and regulations, but only on the condition that miners turn over those responsible for the murder of Vice Minister of the Interior Rodolfo Illanes. Illanes was beaten to death on August 26 when he tried to mediate with the protesting miners. So far, six miners have been arrested, including the president of the Federation of Mining Cooperatives, Carlos Mamani. During the protests also as many as five miners were killed as well in clashes with the police.
Joining us from Cochabamba, Bolivia, to discuss the ongoing situation there is Kathryn Ledebur. Kathryn is director of the Andean Information Network.
Thanks for being on The Real News, Kathryn.
KATHRYN LEDEBUR: Thanks so much for having me.
WILPERT: So one of the new developments in the conflict with the miners was that shortly after the protest, President Evo Morales announced a series of decrees designed essentially to rein in the cooperative mining sector. Let’s take a close look, a short look at what Bolivia’s mining minister, Cesar Navarro, had to say last week.
CESAR NAVARRO: “The government cabinet has issued a decree that expressly reverts ownership of all joint venture contracts with mining cooperatives – both national and foreign – to the State, whether they be leased or subleased.”
WILPERT: This is just one of the decrees, namely, that joint ventures between cooperatives and private companies will be turned over to the state. Other decrees included the requirement of cooperatives to report their membership and to allow unionization.
What do you think, Kathryn, that these measures will do? They don’t seem to represent any concession to the cooperatives that were protesting against the government.
LEDEBUR: I agree. In contrast, I think that there are some pretty strong measures to rein in the cooperatives, to make a firm case, and to regulate a sector that had previously violently rejected any form of regulation. I think that there’s clarity within the Bolivian political context and an understanding on that part of the cooperative miners as well is that they’ve crossed a line in this past conflict, that the murder of Vice Minister Illanes was unacceptable, exceptionally brutal, and not at all predictable.
And I think what we’re going to see here is a period of relative calm and reduced resistance from the cooperative miners. I think that this was a stance that was firm, that was practical, that was not exceptionally abusive, but at the same time created some very important rights and support for workers within the cooperatives, the cooperatives so very highly stratified from individual miners working out to subsistence to very large stratified organizations. This creates a fund and a disposition for social services, unionization, and social benefits for everyone employed by the sector. And I think that that, although it may not be interpreted as such by the cooperative, is a very, very positive step.
WILPERT: So, as I mentioned in the introduction, the government says that it would be still willing to negotiate if those responsible for the death of Vice Minister Illanes are turned over. Do you think there’s any chance that this will happen or that there will be any further negotiations? I mean, you said already that you think there will be a period of calm. But, I mean, it seems like the miners would still be interested in some kind of a change in these rules. So will there be any further movement, do you think, after this?
LEDEBUR: Well, it’s difficult to predict. The government claims that there are two key witnesses in the case of Illanes’s murder. It’s also important to note that in the age of cell phone cameras and video footage, that they’ve been able to identify some of the key players and very public statements from union leaders predicting or calling for the death of Illanes.
So I’m not sure that there’s going to be any capitulation on the part of the mining sector, but they are not currently in a very strong position to negotiate, to force concessions from the government, or to stonewall any of these decrees. They’re not a particularly popular group within Bolivian society and face the resentment of other sectors, including Bolivian salaried miners that work for the state mining company.
WILPERT: One of the other issues that has been a source of the conflict is the death of at least five miners, apparently at the hands of the police. The government says that the police were told not to intervene in the protest with firearms, and yet it seems that they did. What happened, as far as you can tell? Did they ignore that order? What was going on there?
LEDEBUR: Well, you know, based on the conflicts that I have intervened in or monitored publicly, and not this specific conflict, what generally happens in a situation like this is that the conflict is protracted, prolonged, in a rural area where troops are sent in with limited riot gear, limited dissuasive material–so we’re talking about tear gas and rubber pellets–that usually run out in the middle of the conflict. My assessment is most likely that with the use of live sticks of dynamite being thrown by the miners, that this conflict escalated quite quickly, that the use of dissuasive material perhaps occurred initially, but that in this very scary situation both sides took dramatic measures and both sides paid a very, very high price. Right now we’re looking at, according to state autopsies, four miners that died from bullet wounds, almost certainly shot by the police, although it’s very difficult to determine this with ballistic tests in Bolivia, and one miner who apparently died from mishandling of dynamite. It’s very, very important that these cases are also fully investigated. Right now the Bolivian prosecutor’s office is looking at them, but it will be very, very difficult to identify the individual authors in this incident. But an end to impunity for these cases as well as closure in the Illanes case is crucial to move forward in this.
WILPERT: Well, one of the things that President Morales has expressed is his conviction that the conflict is aimed also to destabilize his government. Is there any evidence that has cropped up about this yet? Who else might have been behind the conflict, such as opposition governors, or perhaps even the U.S. Embassy, as many people sometimes say, in Bolivia?
LEDEBUR: It’s impossible to say how events will unfold from here on out. It’s very, very clear that there is a great deal of pressure to end Morales’s term. I think that it’s fair to assess that there is a hope on some sectors of the opposition to force an end to the Morales administration before elections occur in 2019, largely because I think that the opposition right now has not presented any viable proposals, any candidates attractive to the electorate, and are not certain that they would be able to win in the next presidential elections, even against another MAS candidate from Morales’s party.
WILPERT: Yes. That was actually one of the next things I was going to ask about, because Morales just announced that he will not be a candidate in 2019. I mean, after all, he can’t, since he or his government lost the constitutional referendum to amend it to allow him to run another term. So he can’t do that.
So the question, I guess, is, first of all, how has this conflict with the mining sector affected the popularity of the Morales government? I mean, has this impacted his–I mean, it’s still a long ways off, obviously. The presidential election’s in 2019. But, I mean, just in terms of the more general atmosphere or mood in Bolivia, has this conflict impacted the government’s ability to govern and its popularity?
LEDEBUR: Well, I think that in contrast, I think this conflict has shown that the Morales administration is honing its skills. It’s looking for a solution that is non-conflictive, that is through regulation. And I think that they come out quite positively from this issue. There was some press outlets that speculated that loss of support of the cooperative miners might undermine Morales’s popularity, and I don’t think that that’s a viable claim at this point in time. We’re talking about a sector of approximately 60,000 people in a 4 or 5 million person electorate, and there certainly has been widespread rejection for the methods that the miners used and the death of Illanes.
I think that the MAS government did show definite weakness around the referendum campaign, a lack of a viable communication strategy at that point in time, and scandals that arose. But since that time they have become more strategic and more organized.
I think that in order to have the Morales administration lose a lot of points–and it’s way too soon to be seen; two and a half years is an eternity in Bolivian politics–the opposition is going to have to come up with something viable. They’re going to have to propose something. They’re going to have to recommend something. And what we see is that they remain in disarray since they lost the 2005 election, for a period of over 12 years.
WILPERT: OK. Well, great. This is all the time we have, but we’ll definitely be coming back to you on further developments in Bolivia. So thanks again so much for joining us again, Kathryn.
LEDEBUR: Thank you very much for having me.
WILPERT: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.
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